November 6, 2021
Industrialized northern cities drew millions of Black and Brown people from the rural South to the urban North for jobs, jobs, jobs. Enclaves of Black workers congregated in neighborhoods around Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, and NYC -- cities where hopes and dreams gestated amidst urban woes.
Lackawana, NY, was one of those towns that lured many hopeful laborers up north only to test their spirits and claim their bodies. That hotspot of mobility and stagnation was home to Santiago Ruben-Hudson.
Vivid memories of childhood animated Santiago-Hudson's autobiographical one-man show Lackawanna Blues at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. Positioned on a relatively bare stage with only a stool, couple of chairs, table and the guitarist Junior Mack next to him, Santiago Hudson peppered his conversation with the soulful sound of a harmonica wailing the blues.
Santiago-Hudson's monologues exploded in a portrait of extended family members. By slyly altering his voice, he embraced the 25 or so characters by assuming a slight stoop of his back, heavy drag of a foot, poker straight spine or curved arms ready to embrace all the wounded flock.
Through the eyes of little Santiago, we witnessed a whole community of people who struggled to live and love while navigating addictions, provocations and beatings. When Ruben's mother proved an insecure caretaker, Rachel Crosby took charge of his welfare. The owner of two boarding houses and a fleet of cars (in the early 1950's, Blacks could not ride in cabs driven by white drivers, nor rent rooms from white landlords) "Nanny", as she was known, leveraged her financial opportunities.
A good student, and Nanny's pride, Ruben's universe was brimming with folks who were wickedly talented, or down-on their-luck; hopped up on liquor, or determined to scale the confines of Lackawanna.
On more than one occasion, Nanny defused an explosive situation, packing her own pistol in a purse. Always composed, Nanny was a woman of substance--one who never countenanced the abuse of children or helpless women.
Like one of the many amazing Black women who always found ways to survive and protect their families, Nanny was a healer who thrived in the middle of chaos and displacement.
Ruben inherited Nanny's ability to inhabit the interior worlds of those she loved and remained his North Star.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis